The world was exploding, and I was at an auction. On June 11, I decided to unplug early because my friend Sam and I were going to an auction in the morning. Neither of us needed anything--it’s just one of those things we do together. I woke up about 10 minutes before I headed out the door, and we listened to Acoustic Sunrise on the radio all the way there. The day was hot. Summer has arrived to the Midwest, calendar be damned. 94 degrees. And that’s without the heat index. We looked through the pink depression glass and old milk bottles. We shook our heads at the amount of money some people will pay for a crock. Then I saw my find of the day. A scythe. An honest-to-god, two handled, bringing-in-the-sheaves, scythe. And I got it for $1. I was so stoked. I took a picture of it, and pulled out my phone and went on to Twitter for the first time that day. Punchy in the heat of the day, I wrote “ALL THE DEATH COSPLAY” because I am a total Terry Pratchett nerd, and posted a pic of my newfound treasure. And then I saw the rest of my feed. I don’t think I have ever deleted a tweet so fast.
Devastation. 49 lives so tragically, permanently, and needlessly ended. So many others hurt.
And because I am selfish, my first thought was “How am I going to explain this to my child?”
When I got home I started really reading my social media and all the news articles about the massacre.
It wasn’t until my youngest son, who just finished kindergarten said, “Mama, why are you sad?” that I realized I had tears streaming down my face.
I wiped my cheeks and said, “A lot of people died, baby. And they shouldn’t have. It’s really sad.” As I read through the accounts, my thoughts went to all those other mothers. Those mothers who would never look into the bright eyes of their children again. I cannot imagine that pain. And I don’t want to. Then I took a deep breath and said, “Can you go and get your brother for me?”
My youngest baby ran off hollering for his biggest brother. And he is pretty big. He’s only 11 years old, and he’s almost as tall as I am--and I’m not a short woman. I could hear his too big feet lumbering down the stairs and steeled myself.
“Hey Mom.” I’m not “Mama” or “Mommy” any more. He’s going to middle school next year. He’s too old for those names.
“Hey baby. Can you come and sit on my lap?” He rolled his eyes at me. He thinks he’s too old for that too.
“I’ll stand here,” he said and stood behind the couch where I was sitting and put his chin on the top of my head. I took his hands in mine and looked up at him. The position was awkward and weird, but I needed to hold his hands, and look at his face.
“Did you and Dad talk about what happened in Orlando?”
He wouldn’t look at my face. “Yeah. He said a lot of people died.”
“Yes, 49 people died.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Did he tell you why?”
“No.” I knew my husband would leave this conversation for me. It’s not because he can’t handle it, but because my oldest son and I have a lot of practice at having hard conversations.
My son, while only 11 years old, identifies as gay. He has since he was in the first grade when a super duper case of puppy love for a TV actor lead to his “I’m gay” announcement. His life is full of gay people, so he doesn’t see any big importance in being an out gay kid. It’s just another thing about him, like being right handed, and being too tall. It’s just part of what makes him who he is. But it has also lead to many of those hard conversations. “Why doesn’t Mitt Romney like me?” “Why don’t we put money in the Salvation Army buckets?” “Why are other parents upset when their kids are gay?” We have tackled all of these, and so many more. The world can be a harsh and horrible place, and it’s a special kind of terrible to be a parent who has to explain that to their kid. But I can’t be the kind of parent I want to be and not talk to him about these things. It is his life and he needs to know. So, we talk and I watch his child’s mind try to figure out things that stump adults. And I hate every minute of it.
“The man with the gun went to a place he knew was full of gay people, and he attacked them because they were gay.”
His eyes found mine, and he asked the question that I knew was coming. The question I knew didn’t have a good answer. “Why?”
“Sometimes people do really crazy things, baby, crazy and horrible things. You know that some people don’t like gay people?”
He shrugged a shoulder. We’ve gone over this before. “Yeah.”
“Some people don’t like gay people because that’s what their religion tells them. Some people don’t like gay people because their families say gay people are bad.” I squeezed his hands that were still in my own, leaning my head over the back of the couch, I pulled his forehead down to mine. “Those people are very, very wrong. You know that I think every single part of you is perfect.”
“I know.” And he pulled away from me. “I’m going upstairs.” And off he went. It was hard to know what to do. Should I chase after him and force him to have a more in-depth conversation with me? Should I leave him alone? How much should I pound into my 11 years old’s head, “There are people in the world who want you dead”?
My husband answered the question for me. “I’ll go and sit with him,” he said, “just in case he wants to talk.”
A little while later I got a text from my friend Sam. “Vigil. Pick you up in 5?”
I shot back a quick “Yes” and I ran up the stairs, calling to my kid.
“There’s a vigil for the people in Orlando. That’s where people gather together and light candles, and stand in solidarity with the people who died. Do you want to go with me and Sam?”
“With other gay people?”
“Yes, and people who love gay people too.”
The ride over to the meeting place was quiet. Cars were everywhere, and we had to walk a few blocks to get to the meeting place. He held my hand as we walked, eventually got our candles, and joined in the crowd moving toward the vigil. There were hundreds of people, and the sun was rapidly going down, but there weren’t many other children--we only saw one. My son gets nervous in crowds, and this was something unlike anything he had ever done before. With one hand he held his candle, and in the other he held my hand, shifting my wedding ring back and forth with the tips of his fingers.
“There are a lot of people here.” That was his only comment.
The crowd was so large that we couldn’t really hear the speakers. We could sing along with the national anthem, and participate in the call and response, but the nuances were lost. My son concentrated on keeping his candle lit, and paying attention to when he should raise it above his head with the rest of the crowd. When it burned all the way down, he took my cell phone, turned on the flashlight app and held it up instead.
As things began to wind down, I turned to him and put my arms around his shoulders. It’s so odd to be able to look him straight in the eye. I’m sure by the time I get used to it, I’ll need to look up instead. Then I asked him the question that I have been asking all of my sons since they were babies, “Who is my best boy?”
“I am.” He rolled his eyes. He is so sick of this game.
“And how long will you be my best boy?”
“That’s right. Even when you are 6’4” like your dad, you will always be my best boy.” I searched his face until his eyes met mine. “You are perfect, exactly the way you are. And everyone else here thinks so too.”
I hope a lot of things for my kids. On this day, I found myself hoping that my son will grow up to be a man who has friends who do things like take him to clubs. I hope he does crazy stuff there that he would be embarrassed for me to find out about. I hope he has fun. I hope he has stories. I hope he makes it out alive.
That last one is new.